A diplomatic view of Bishop John Magee

A diplomatic view of Bishop John Magee Bishop Emeritus John Magee
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Echoes of the past from the archives


Light is cast on the lives of others aside from politicians. For instance the career of Bishop Emeritus John Magee, which led from early distinction to eventual controversy and disaster on his return to Ireland.

After many years in the higher reaches of the Vatican as a figure of great standing, his appointment as Bishop of Cloyne 1987 came as a surprise.

But back in 1982, his appointment as Pontifical Master of Ceremonies gave rise to confidential comments by Irish diplomats which are revealed in one of the newly-released files, as “the appointment of a non-Italian Master of Ceremonies was almost unprecedented”.


On his appointment the files of the Irish Embassy to the Holy See, now reveal a very confidential assessment of him by Irish diplomats in Rome.

A dispatch marked ‘Secret’on March 4, 1982 remarked that “the Vatican is not a practitioner of ‘open diplomacy openly arrived at’ [an allusion to President Wilson’s 14 points of 1918 for a post-war world].

It is often hard to ascertain the truth; to learn the whole truth is even more difficult”.

However, Magee was seen as a person who had “considerable power in the Vatican”, as the Pope was “sadly short of Irish nationals at senior levels in the Secretariat”. (Though the British diplomats in Rome thought there were too many Irishmen there as it was.)

He was one of two men the Pope would turn to for advice on Irish affairs. The other was the Nuncio Alibrandi, distrusted in Iveagh House. Magee was later known to be close to Cardinal Ó Fiaich in Armagh.

He was suspect of underlying anti-British feelings. Magee, who came of “a strongly nationalist family, retains much of the outlook of the northern minority. His attitude to ecumenism is almost certainly different from that of most southern Irish clergy, and a fortiori, from that of English Catholics.”

In the corridors of the Vatican, Magee was “respected but not popular”.

“From another source,” the report continued,” we learn that Cardinal Hume on his last visit to Rome had been incensed by some suggestions about the [upcoming 1982] visit [to Britain of the Pope] made to him by Fr Magee immediately before he entered the Pope’s study”.

Magee never worked in the Irish Church at home. Having formerly worked in Nigeria as a missionary, Fr Magee had arrived in Rome in 1969.

He was chosen by Pope Paul VI [pictured] to be one of his private secretaries and continued in this position under Pope John Paul I. After his death (in controversial circumstances, which involved prevarications on Magee’s part), he continued in service as a private secretary to Pope John Paul II.

“There was a lack of rapport between the [Pope’s secretaries] Magee and the long-serving Pole Fr Dziwiss] and the Curia administration.” (In his later memoirs, published in 2008, by then Cardinal Dziwisz pointedly says nothing about Fr Magee.)

As private secretary to three Popes in sequence, Magee is the only man to hold such a position in Vatican history, which naturally received great attention in Ireland. He was sent on a private mission by the Pope John Paul to speak to Bobby Sands, which caused some dismay to the Irish and British governments.

On February 17, 1987 he was appointed bishop of Cloyne. He was consecrated by Pope John Paul II on St Patrick’s Day 1987, in St Peter’s in the Vatican.

“For our part,” Ambassador Brendan Dillon wrote in a personal letter to Magee, “we are sorry that the Holy See is losing an Irishman who has served with such distinction in so arduous a post.”

His time at Cloyne was marked by almost continuous controversy about many matters, culminating in a scandal conceding the cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by clergy and the publication of an official report in which he was severely criticised.

As an Ulsterman, Magee’s only connection with Cork was that he studied Latin there as student.

When he got the appointment he was only 50, which was young, but it was seen by some as indicating the possibility of a later move to higher office – to Dublin, or Armagh, perhaps even to becoming the first Irish Pope.  But that was not to be.